Tag Archives: Technological Singularity

Centauri Dreams Covers Arthur C. Clarke and Deep Time

From Centauri Dreams:

I’ve always wondered how Arthur C. Clarke coped with the news he received in 1986, when doctors in London told him he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal illness that in the States is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. The diagnosis was mistaken — it turns out Clarke actually suffered from what is known as ‘post-polio syndrome,’ a debilitating but not fatal condition. For two long years, though, he must have thought through all the symptoms of ALS, knowing that the degenerative motor neuron breakdown could gradually sap him of strength and movement. How would such an energetic man cope with an agonizing, slow fade?

clarke

Neil McAleer’s revised biography (Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke) gives the answer, as recounted by Clarke’s brother Fred:

“…after the initial shock, Arthur more or less said, damn it, he’d got an enormous amount he wanted to do, and if he’s only got fifteen months to do it, he’d better whack into it. And he did whack into it, and the next year he produced four books.

“Eighteen months later he was still writing, and all the horrible things they told him might happen hadn’t happened to him. Of course they had told him all the things he should do to keep it under control—what diets to take and what exercises to do, which he very religiously did. He carried on working intensely and produced an enormous amount of work, which might have been the saving grace. If he had been the sort to say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die in fifteen months,’ he probably would have…”

That story speaks volumes about the man, identifying a resolve that kept him working despite his other ailments into his nineties. It also tells me that he was able to place himself mentally in a context that weighed a single human life against the broad movement of history. I think Clarke was happy to see himself as someone who instigated currents of thought, changed perspectives and launched careers. He did these things for people of all ages both by the example of his own life and by the lives he created in fiction that showed us what humanity might become.

Young Writer at Work

By the time Clarke moved from Somerset to London in 1936 he was already suffused with science fiction and in particular enraptured with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, not to mention the second-hand copies of American science fiction magazines that were then available in England. He spoke of the ‘ravenous addiction’ these magazines inspired and the effect that Stapledon’s novel, with a time scale spanning five billion years, had upon his imagination. He was twelve years old when he first read Last and First Men, awed by its cosmic reach and its placement of the evolution of humanity against the broader backdrop of the cosmos.

Think for a moment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has any film ever covered a wider swath of time, from the beginnings of tool making to the apotheosis of the species in an extraterrestrial encounter? This was Clarke’s stage, but the other great discovery of his youth, David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1931) gave him the technology he would spend a life examining. Lasser was the founder of the American Interplanetary Society (which became the American Rocket Society and, eventually, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). He was also, for a time, the editor of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. If Stapledon brought Clarke the cosmos, Lasser gave the boy a focus on the attainable, the idea of space as a reachable frontier.

In London, Clarke had a tiny flat in Norfolk Square and was soon co-editing (with science fiction writer William Temple) the fanzine Novae Terrae, whose editorial sessions were so cramped in Clarke’s quarters that Temple once said “…there was hardly room for the two of us, and A[rthur]’s Ego had to be left outside on the landing.” Clarke’s nickname of Ego derives from this period when Temple and Clarke both discovered the latter’s competitive nature. I think McAleer is right in stressing, though, that Clarke’s volubility was largely the result of his enthusiasms. This was a man who loved, above all else, the communication of an idea.

Into the Remote Future

For those keeping score, Novae Terrae would soon become, under the editorship of Ted Carnell, the influential magazine New Worlds. But in the days just before World War II, while working on issues of Novae Terrae and assorted publications for the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke found time to begin developing his first novel from ideas that had come to him back in Somerset. “Against the Fall of Night” would appear in an early version in Startling Stories in November of 1948, but that hardly ended the tale. Clarke kept rewriting the story, seeing it into print as a novel from Gnome Press in 1953 and then putting it through a major revision as The City and the Stars, published in 1956.

imagesclarke-against-the-fall-of-night-small

I seldom think of Clarke as a reader of poetry, but he clearly knew his Housman:

Here, on the level sand, Between the sea and land, What shall I build or write Against the fall of night?

The words are from Housman’s poem “Smooth Between Sea and Land.” Maybe the idea of long stretches of sand and a metaphorical night that comes to us all fired his imagination. I came across The City and the Stars just a few years after it was published and was mesmerized by its setting in much the way Clarke was taken with Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Here was Diaspar, the city of the far future, the only city on planet Earth, whose inhabitants moved through a high-tech monument to stasis. Nothing changes in Diaspar even as the world around it loses its oceans and becomes desert. Clarke would have much to say about the kind of inward thinking that his characters have to overcome, but the unmistakable fact about Diaspar is that the city at the end of time is also achingly, eerily beautiful.

Here’s science fiction writer Jo Walton on the book, nailing its essential allure:

The plot is quite simple. Diaspar is beautiful but entirely inward turned. Alvin looks out and discovers that there is more in the universe than his one city. He recovers the truth about human history, and rather than wrecking what is left of human civilization, revitalises it. By the end of the novel, Man, Diaspar, and Earth have begun to turn outward again. That’s all well and good. What’s always stayed with me is the in-turned Diaspar and the sense of deep time. That’s what’s memorable, and cool, and influential. Clarke recognized though that there isn’t, and can’t be, any story there, beyond that amazing image. It’s a short book even so, 159 pages and not a wasted word.

As to its author, I love the way he could never let this book go. It was, after all, his first novel, and as such it was perhaps the most deeply inspired by the reading of his youth. When he wrote a new preface to it in 1955, he noted that developments in information theory encouraged him to re-think the future course of humanity, a revision that would lead, says McAleer, to a whopping seventy-five percent new prose. The man was indefatigable; he couldn’t let go when ideas seized him, and when he had the wind behind him, no horizon was too far to strive for.

Restless Thoughts from Orbit

On the same visit to the United States in which he met Neil McAleer and learned that he did not have ALS after all, Clarke visited the National Air and Space Museum with Gregory Benford, long-term colleague Fred Durant and Hector Ekanayake, whose friendship with Clarke in Sri Lanka spanned decades. Benford noted the lack of long-term perspective in much contemporary science fiction and pointed out that The City and the Stars had been written before the discovery of DNA, so biology made no significant appearance in the story. Benford and Clarke’s Beyond the Fall of Night (1990) would be the result of that conversation.

clarke_powers

McAleer’s biography gives the details on all of Clarke’s books, but my childhood fascination with The City and the Stars has kept me focused on the early stages of Clarke’s career in London and the ideas that began germinating both there and earlier in Somerset. The Signet paperback illustrated here is not the edition I first encountered, but I have to run it because of my love of Richard Powers, whose cover art appeared in so many paperbacks from this period. In this case, Powers’ surreal images go far toward capturing the timeless allure of the city in the desert.

The letters that McAleer has access to offer insights from Clarke’s old associates, and some new ones as well. In 2006 a British engineer named Nicholas Patrick was about to fly on a Space Shuttle mission, Discovery STS-116. He wrote Clarke to invite him to the launch, telling him he had been reading Clarke’s books since growing up in London. Due to his health problems, Clarke was unable to appear, though he wrote an enthusiastic response thanking Patrick, who replied:

“I am sad to hear that you will not be able to attend the launch, but understand completely given the circumstances. Perhaps instead, if you are willing, I might email you from orbit. “A month ago I reread The City and the Stars, perhaps my favourite book, and was again drawn by the ideas in it. Ever since I first read it, I have wanted to find an old spaceship and travel to distant suns. I shall be very happy in low earth orbit, but I don’t think it will completely satisfy me.”

And that’s the thing: Anyone who has grown up with The City and the Stars is going to find even the wonders of Earth orbit a bit tame. Clarke was always at his best as a science fiction writer when taking the long view. His characters would learn to burst free from Diaspar, but its very conception is as staggering and poetic as anything he ever wrote. From the book:

Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man’s. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind-all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached – that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality: No machine may contain any moving parts. Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him.

Thus Clarke’s description of the computer that runs Diaspar free from all human intervention. What continues to confound me about Clarke is what McAleer brings out so well, the duality between an imagination capable of transcending time and the canny engineering horse-sense that spawned near-term space achievements. This is the man who dreamed up communications satellites when not dreaming of eternal cities of the far future. Tomorrow, then, let’s look at Clarke the space pioneer.

Sir Arthur was one of my favorites growing up and I found his “hard” science science-fiction very entertaining and thought provoking. His ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ and ‘Songs of Distant Earth’ was the pinnacle of his “interstellar works” and no doubt influenced many of the rocket scientists working in NASA and private industry.

I did in fact read ‘The City and The Stars’, but after I read the other two books. I found “City” kind of esoteric and very advanced for it’s time period. In fact, I found several “Singularity” ideas in it.

Excellent post by Paul Gilster!

Arthur C. Clarke: On Cities and Stars

Worldships and Planetary Chauvanism

From Centauri Dreams:

The assumptions we bring to interstellar flight shape the futures we can imagine. It’s useful, then, to question those assumptions at every turn, particularly the one that says the reason we will go to the stars is to find other planets like the Earth. The thought is natural enough, and it’s built into the exoplanet enterprise, for the one thing we get excited about more than any other is the prospect of finding small, rocky worlds at about Earth’s distance from a Sun-like star. This is what Kepler is all about. From an astrobiological perspective, this focus makes sense, as we want to know whether there is other life — particularly intelligent life — in the universe.

But interstellar expansion may not involve terrestrial-class worlds at all, though they would still remain the subject of intense study. Let’s assume for a moment that a future human civilization expands to the stars in worldships that take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach their destination. The occupants of these enormous vessels might travel in a tightly packed urban environment or perhaps in a much more ‘rural’ setting with Earth-like amenities. Many of them would live out their lives in transit, without the ability to be there at journey’s end. We can only speculate what kind of social structures might emerge around the ultimate mission imperative.

Moving Beyond a Planetary Surface

Humans who have grown up in a place that has effectively become their world are going to find its norms prevail, and the idea of living on a planetary surface may hold little interest. Isaac Asimov once wrote about what he called ‘planetary chauvinism,’ which falls back on something Eric M. Jones wrote back in the 1980s. Jones believed that people traveling to another star will be far more intent on mining asteroids and the moons of planets to help them build new habitats for their own expanding population. Stephen Ashworth, a familiar figure on Centauri Dreams, writes about what he calls ‘astro-civilizations,’ space-based cultures that focus on the material and energy resources of whatever system they are in rather than planets.

mann_worldship

Ashworth’s twin essays appear in a 2012 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (citation below) that grew out of a worldship symposium held in 2011 at BIS headquarters in London. The entire issue is a wonderful contribution to the growing body of research on worldships and their uses. Ashworth points out that a planetary civilization like our own thinks in terms of planetary resources and, when looking toward interstellar options, naturally assumes the primary goal will be to locate new ‘Earths.’ A corollary is the assumption of rapid transport that mirrors the kind of missions used to explore our own Solar System.

Image: A worldship kilometers in length as envisioned by space artist Adrian Mann.

An astro-civilization is built on different premises, and evolves naturally enough from the space efforts of its forebears. Let me quote Ashworth on this:

“A space-based or astro-civilisation…is based on technologies which are an extension of those required on planetary surfaces, most importantly the design of structures which provide artificial gravity by rotation, and the ability to mine and process raw materials in microgravity conditions. In fact a hierarchical progression of technology development can be traced, in which each new departure depends upon all the previous ones, which leads ultimately to an astro-civilisation.

The technology development Ashworth is talking about is a natural extension of planetary methods, moving through agriculture and industrialization into a focus on the recovery of materials that have not been concentrated on a planetary surface, and on human adaptation not only to lower levels of gravity but to life in pressurized structures beginning with outposts on the Moon, Mars and out into the system. Assume sufficient expertise with microgravity environments — and this will come in due course — and the human reliance upon 1 g, and for that matter upon planetary surfaces, begins to diminish. Power sources move away from fossil fuels and gravitate toward nuclear and solar power sources usable anywhere in the galaxy.

Agriculture likewise moves from industrialized methods on planetary surfaces to hydroponic agriculture in artificial environments. Ashworth sees this as a progression taking our adaptable species from the African Savannah to the land surface of the entire Earth and on to the planets, from which we begin, as we master the wide range of new habitats becoming available, to adapt to living in space itself. He sees a continuation in the increase of population densities that took us from nomadic life to villages to cities, finally being extended into a fully urbanized existence that will flourish inside large space colonies and, eventually, worldships.

An interstellar worldship is, after all, a simple extension from a colony world that remains in orbit around our own star. That colony world, within which people can sustain their lives over generations, is itself an outgrowth of earlier technologies like the Space Station, where residence is temporary but within which new skills for adapting to space are gradually learned. Where I might disagree with Ashworth is on a point he himself raises, that the kind of habitats Gerard O’Neill envisioned didn’t assume high population densities at all, but rather an abundance of energy and resources that would make life far more comfortable than on a planet.

 

This reminds me of an old Analog article I read back in the 1970s by Larry Niven titled “Bigger Than Worlds” in which Niven gave several examples of structures that evolved into massive structures from interstellar vessels to Ringworlds and Dyson Sphere, all of which were safer than natural planets.

Of course this goes by the assumption if human goes by the “expansion” route, or the “evo devo” route proposed by Jon Smart.

Toward a Space-Based Civilization

 

 

The Eerie Silence and Machine Intelligences

From The Daily Galaxy:

Conscious-machine_cp3hb_2263

The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago,Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa. Is the human species entering another evolutionary inflection point?

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his new book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.”I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe,” Davies writes. “If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

Before the year 2020, scientists are expected to launch intelligent space robots that will venture out to explore the universe for us.
“Robotic exploration probably will always be the trail blazer for human exploration of far space,” says Wolfgang Fink, physicist and researcher at Caltech. “We haven’t yet landed a human being on Mars but we have a robot there now. In that sense, it’s much easier to send a robotic explorer. When you can take the human out of the loop, that is becoming very exciting.”
As the growing global population continues to increase the burden on the Earth’s natural resources, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Roger Launius, thinks that we’ll have to alter human biology to prepare to colonize space.
In the September issue of Endeavour, Launius takes a look at the historical debate surrounding human colonization of the solar system. Experiments have shown that certain life forms can survive in space. Recently, British scientists found that bacteria living on rocks taken from Britain’s Beer village were able to survive 553 days in space, on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). The microbes returned to Earth alive, proving they could withstand the harsh environment.
Humans, on the other hand, are unable to survive beyond about a minute and a half in space without significant technological assistance. Other than some quick trips to the moon and the ISS, astronauts haven’t spent too much time too far away from Earth. Scientists don’t know enough yet about the dangers of long-distance space travel on human biological systems. A one-way trip to Mars, for example, would take approximately six months. That means astronauts will be in deep space for more than a year with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Launius, who calls himself a cyborg for using medical equipment to enhance his own life, says the difficult question is knowing where to draw the line in transforming human biological systems to adapt to space. Credit: NASA/Brittany Green
“If it’s about exploration, we’re doing that very effectively with robots,” Launius said. “If it’s about humans going somewhere, then I think the only purpose for it is to get off this planet and become a multi-planetary species.”
Stephen Hawking agrees: “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” Hawking told the Big Think website in August. “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the “next state of human evolution” to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn’t really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs—a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts—or in simpler terms, part human, part machine.
“There are cyborgs walking about us,” Launius said. “There are individuals who have been technologically enhanced with things such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants that allow those people to have fuller lives. I would not be alive without technological advances.”
The possibility of using cyborgs for space travel has been the subject of research for at least half a century. A seminal  article published in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline titled “Cyborgs and Space” changed the debate, saying that there was a better alternative to recreating the Earth’s environment in space, the predominant thinking during that time. The two scientists compared that approach to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling.
“Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,” Clynes and Kline wrote.
“It does raise profound ethical, moral and perhaps even religious questions that haven’t been seriously addressed,” Launius said. “We have a ways to go before that happens.”
Some experts such as medical ethicist Grant Gillett believe that the danger is that we might end up producing a psychopath because we don’t quite understand the nature of cyborgs.
NASA, writes Lauris, still isn’t focusing much research on how to improve human biological systems for space exploration. Instead, its Human Research Program is focused on risk reduction: risks of fatigue, inadequate nutrition, health problems and radiation. While financial and ethical concerns may have held back cyborg research, Launius believes that society may have to engage in the cyborg debate again when space programs get closer to launching long-term deep space exploration missions.
“If our objective is to become space-faring people, it’s probably going to force you to reconsider how to reengineer humans,’ Launius said.
When one mentions merging humans with machines in the future, it is usually in the context of the Technological Singularity, not long range space exploration ( although as little as ten years ago, this was a serious proposal considered by NASA ).
Many have thought of the Eerie Silence over the decades, including futurists as George Dvorsky and John Smart, who propose that once man and machines merge, a super-intelligence will emerge and our civilization will disappear from the visible Universe.
Thus, another possible explanation for the Eerie Silence.
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Digital Data and DNA

From Centauri Dreams:

One of the benefits of constantly proliferating information is that we’re getting better and better at storing lots of stuff in small spaces. I love the fact that when I travel, I can carry hundreds of books with me on my Kindle, and to those who say you can only read one book at a time, I respond that I like the choice of books always at hand, and the ability to keep key reference sources in my briefcase. Try lugging Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary around with you and you’ll see why putting it on a Palm III was so delightful about a decade ago. There is, alas, no Kindle or Nook version.

Did I say information was proliferating? Dave Turek, a designer of supercomputers for IBM (world chess champion Deep Blue is among his creations) wrote last May that from the beginning of recorded time until 2003, humans had created five billion gigabytes of information (five exabytes). In 2011, that amount of information was being created every two days. Turek’s article says that by 2013, IBM expects that interval to shrink to every ten minutes, which calls for new computing designs that can handle data density of all but unfathomable proportions.

A recent post on Smithsonian.com’s Innovations blog captures the essence of what’s happening:

But how is this possible? How did data become such digital kudzu? Put simply, every time your cell phone sends out its GPS location, every time you buy something online, every time you click the Like button on Facebook, you’re putting another digital message in a bottle. And now the oceans are pretty much covered with them.

And that’s only part of the story. Text messages, customer records, ATM transactions, security camera images…the list goes on and on. The buzzword to describe this is “Big Data,” though that hardly does justice to the scale of the monster we’ve created.

The article rightly notes that we haven’t begun to catch up with our ability to capture information, which is why, for example, so much fertile ground for exploration can be found inside the data sets from astronomical surveys and other projects that have been making observations faster than scientists can analyze them. Learning how to work our way through gigantic databases is the premise of Google’s BigQuery software, which is designed to comb terabytes of information in seconds. Even so, the challenge is immense. Consider that the algorithms used by the Kepler team, sharp as they are, have been usefully supplemented by human volunteers working with the Planet Hunters project, who sometimes see things that computers do not.

Shakespeare

But as we work to draw value out of the data influx, we’re also finding ways to translate data into even denser media, a prerequisite for future deep space probes that will, we hope, be gathering information at faster clips than ever before. Consider work at the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK, where researchers Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney have managed to code Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets into DNA, in which form a single sonnet weighs 0.3 millionths of a millionth of a gram. You can read about this in Shakespeare and Martin Luther King demonstrate potential of DNA storage, an article on their paper in Nature which just ran in The Guardian.

Image: Coding The Bard into DNA makes for intriguing data storage prospects. This portrait, possibly by John Taylor, is one of the few images we have of the playwright (now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London).

Goldman and Birney are talking about DNA as an alternative to spinning hard disks and newer methods of solid-state storage. Their work is given punch by the calculation that a gram of DNA could hold as much information as more than a million CDs. Here’s how The Guardian describes their method:

The scientists developed a code that used the four molecular letters or “bases” of genetic material – known as G, T, C and A – to store information.

Digital files store data as strings of 1s and 0s. The Cambridge team’s code turns every block of eight numbers in a digital code into five letters of DNA. For example, the eight digit binary code for the letter “T” becomes TAGAT. To store words, the scientists simply run the strands of five DNA letters together. So the first word in “Thou art more lovely and more temperate” from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, becomes TAGATGTGTACAGACTACGC.

The converted sonnets, along with DNA codings of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and the famous double helix paper by Francis Crick and James Watson, were sent to Agilent, a US firm that makes physical strands of DNA for researchers. The test tube Goldman and Birney got back held just a speck of DNA, but running it through a gene sequencing machine, the researchers were able to read the files again. This parallels work by George Church (Harvard University), who last year preserved his own book Regenesis via DNA storage.

The differences between DNA and conventional storage are striking. From the paper in Nature (thanks to Eric Davis for passing along a copy):

The DNA-based storage medium has different properties from traditional tape- or disk-based storage.As DNA is the basis of life on Earth, methods for manipulating, storing and reading it will remain the subject of continual technological innovation.As with any storage system, a large-scale DNA archive would need stable DNA management and physical indexing of depositions.But whereas current digital schemes for archiving require active and continuing maintenance and regular transferring between storage media, the DNA-based storage medium requires no active maintenance other than a cold, dry and dark environment (such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has no permanent on-site staff) yet remains viable for thousands of years even by conservative estimates.

The paper goes on to describe DNA as ‘an excellent medium for the creation of copies of any archive for transportation, sharing or security.’ The problem today is the high cost of DNA production, but the trends are moving in the right direction. Couple this with DNA’s incredible storage possibilities — one of the Harvard researchers working with George Church estimates that the total of the world’s information could one day be stored in about four grams of the stuff — and you have a storage medium that could handle vast data-gathering projects like those that will spring from the next generation of telescope technology both here on Earth and aboard space platforms.

I am not a geneticist or biologist of any kind so I can’t write a good review about the technology or wisdom of such a storage method other than to say that biological systems tend to break down over long periods of time, even small dots of DNA.

I can understand the information carrying capacity of DNA; livings things require googols of information in order to operate their bodies and reproduce, so putting vast amounts of generic info into DNA does make sense.

I would suggest making a virtual model of a DNA molecule, storing it in a crystal and loading the info that way. It would last longer IMO.

Data Storage: The DNA Option

Sci-Fi Classics: Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last Men in London’

Olaf Stapledon was one of the most influential science-fiction authors of the early 20th Century. His many works were studied by C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Maynard Smith and Stanislaw Lem and influenced these author’s future works. And I must admit, gave me the idea for the “Children of Humanity” of my own amateur scribblings.

Recently Adelade University in Australia has made the works of Stapledon online for download and I for one am thrilled. I printed out ‘Star Maker’ an ‘Last and First Men’ some years ago on another site and I’m now in the process of reading ‘Last Men in London’.

Introduction

The Future’s Concern with the Past

MEN and women of Earth! Brief Terrestrials, of that moment when the First Human Species hung in the crest of its attainment, wavelike, poised for downfall, I, a member of the last Human Species, address you for a second time from an age two thousand million years after your day, from an age as remotely future to you as the Earth’s beginning is remotely past.

In my earlier communication I told of the huge flux of events between your day and mine. I told of the rise and fall of many mankinds, of the spirit’s long desolations and brief splendours. I told how, again and again, after age-long sleep, man woke to see dimly what he should be doing with himself; how he strove accordingly to master his world and his own nature; and how, each time, circumstances or his own ignorance and impotence flung him back into darkness. I told how he struggled with invaders, and how he was driven from planet to planet, refashioning himself for each new world. I told, not only of his great vicissitudes, but also of the many and diverse modes of mind which he assumed in different epochs. I told how at length, through good fortune and skilled control, there was fashioned a more glorious mankind, the Eighteenth Human Species, my own. I hinted as best I might at the great richness and subtlety, the perfect harmony and felicity, of this last expression of the human spirit. I told of our discovery that our own fair planet must soon be destroyed with all the sun’s offspring; and of our exultant acceptance even of this doom. I told of the final endeavours which the coming end imposes on us.

In this my second communication I shall say little of my own world, and less of the ages that lie between us. Instead I shall speak mostly of your world and of yourselves. I shall try to show you yourselves through the eyes of the Last Men. Of myself and my fellow-workers, I shall speak, but chiefly as the link between your world and mine, as pioneering explorers in your world, and secret dwellers in your minds. I shall tell of the difficulties and dangers of our strange exploration of ages that to us are past, and of our still stranger influence upon past minds. But mostly I shall speak of men and women living in Europe in your twentieth Christian century, and of a great crisis that we observe in your world, a great opportunity which you tragically fail to grasp.

In relation to the long drama which I unfolded in my earlier communication it might well seem that even the most urgent and the most far-reaching events of your little sphere are utterly trivial. The rise and fall of your world-moving individuals, the flowering and withering of your nations, and all their blind, plant-like struggle for existence, the slow changes and sudden upheavals of your society, the archaic passions of your religious sects, and quick-changes of your fashionable thought, all seem, in relation to those aeons of history, no more than the ineffective gyrations of flotsam of the great river of humanity, whose direction is determined, not by any such superficial movements, but by the thrust of its own mass and the configuration of the terrain.

In the light of the stars what significance is there in such minute events as the defeat of an army, the issue of a political controversy, the success or failure of a book, the result of a football match? In that cold light even the downfall of a species is a matter of little importance. And the final extinction of man, after his two thousand million years of precarious blundering, is but the cessation of one brief tremulous theme in the great music of the cosmos.

Yet minute events have sometimes remarkable consequences. Again and again this was evident in the great story that I told. And now I am to describe events some of which, though momentary and minute in relation to the whole career of man, are yet in relation to yourselves long-drawn-out and big with destiny. In consequence of these momentary happenings, so near you, yet so obscure, man’s career is fated to be the weary succession of disasters and incomplete victories which I described on an earlier occasion.

But the account of these events, though it is in some sense the main theme of this book, is not its sole, not even its chief purpose. I shall say much of your baseness, much of your futility. But all that I say, if I say it well, and if the mind that I have chosen for my mouthpiece serves me adequately, shall be kindled with a sense of that beauty which, in spite of all your follies and treasons, is yours uniquely. For though the whole career of your species is so confused and barren, and though, against the background of the rise and fall of species after species and the destruction of world after world, the life of any individual among you, even the most glorious, seems so completely ineffective and insignificant, yet, in the least member of your or any other species, there lies for the discerning eye a beauty peculiar not only to that one species but to that one individual.

To us the human dawn is precious for its own sake. And it is as creatures of the dawn that we regard you, even in your highest achievement. To us the early human natures and every primitive human individual have a beauty which we ourselves, in spite of all our triumphs, have not; the beauty namely of life’s first bewildered venturing upon the wings of the spirit, the beauty of the child with all its innocent brutishness and cruelty. We understand the past better than it can understand itself, and love it better than it can love itself. Seeing it in relation to all things, we see it as it is; and so we can observe even its follies and treasons with reverence, knowing that we ourselves would have behaved so, had we been so placed and so fashioned. The achievements of the past, however precarious and evanescent, we salute with respect, knowing well that to achieve anything at all in such circumstances and with such a nature entailed a faith and fortitude which in those days were miracles. We are therefore moved by filial piety to observe all the past races of men, and if possible every single individual life, with careful precision, so that, before we are destroyed, we may crown those races our equals in glory though not in achievement. Thus we shall contribute to the cosmos a beauty which it would otherwise lack, namely the critical yet admiring love which we bear toward you.

But it is not only as observers that we, who are of man’s evening, are concerned with you, children of the dawn. In my earlier message I told how the future might actually influence the past, how beings such as my contemporaries, who have in some degree the freedom of eternity, may from their footing in eternity, reach into past minds and contribute to their experience. For whatever is truly eternal is present equally in all times; and so we, in so far as we are capable of eternity, are influences present in your age. I said that we seek out all those points in past history where our help is entailed for the fulfilment of the past’s own nature, and that this work of inspiration has become one of our main tasks. How this can be, I shall explain more fully later. Strange it is indeed that we, who are so closely occupied with the great adventure of racial experience, so closely also with preparations to face the impending ruin of our world, and with research for dissemination of a seed of life in remote regions of the galaxy, should yet also find ourselves under obligation toward the vanished and unalterable past.

No influence of ours can save your species from destruction. Nothing could save it but a profound change in your own nature; and that cannot be. Wandering among you, we move always with fore-knowledge of the doom which your own imperfection imposes on you. Even if we could, we would not change it; for it is a theme required in the strange music of the spheres.

Although Stapledon’s premise of different “Mankinds” marks higher rungs on the evolutionary ladder a couple of billion years into the future, he leaves the conflict part of our very natures intact which is the glue that holds the various Mankinds together.

And that is the special quality of Stapledon’s writings that never dates itself.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stapledon/olaf/

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stapledon/olaf/london/contents.html

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stapledon/olaf/

Special hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Robot Rovers To Explore Asteroids and Moons

From kurzweilai.net:

Stanford researchers in collaboration with NASA JPL and MIT have designed a robotic platform that involves a mother spacecraft deploying one or several spiked, roughly spherical rovers to the Martian moon Phobos.

Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials.

Developed by Marco Pavone, an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Phobos Surveyor, a coffee-table-sized vehicle flanked by two umbrella-shaped solar panels, would orbit around Phobos throughout the mission. The researchers have already constructed a prototype.

The Surveyor would release only one hedgehog at a time. Together, the mothership and hedgehogs would work together to determine the hedgehog’s position and orientation. Using this information, they would map a trajectory, which the mother craft would then command the hedgehog to travel.

In turn, the spiky explorers would relay scientific measurements back to the Phobos Surveyor, which would forward the data to researchers on Earth. Based on their analysis of the data, the scientists would direct the mothership to the next hedgehog deployment site.

An entire mission would last two to three years. Just flying to Phobos would take the Surveyor about two years. Then the initial reconnaissance phase, during which the Surveyor would map the terrain, would last a few months. The mothership would release each of the five or six hedgehogs several days apart, allowing scientists enough time to decide where to release the next hedgehog.

For many decisions, Pavone’s system renders human control unnecessary. “It’s the next level of autonomy in space,” he said.

Moon clues

The synergy between the Phobos Surveyor and the hedgehogs would also be reflected in their sharing of scientific roles. The Surveyor would take large-scale measurements, while the hedgehogs would gather more detailed data. For example, the Surveyor might use a gamma ray or neutron detector to measure the concentration of various chemical elements and compounds on the surface, while the hedgehogs might use microscopes to measure the fine crevices and fissures lining the terrain.

Although scientists could use the platform to explore any of the solar system’s smaller members, including comets and asteroids, Pavone has designed it with the Martian moon Phobos in mind.

An analysis of Phobos’ soil composition could uncover clues about the moon’s origin. Scientists have yet to agree on whether Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars or a piece of Mars that an asteroid impact flung into orbit. This could have deep implications for our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, Pavone said.

To confirm Phobos’ origins, Pavone’s group plans to deploy most of the hybrids near Stickney Crater. Besides providing a gravity “sweet spot” where the mother craft can stably hover between Mars and Phobos, the crater also exposes the moon’s inner layers.

A human mission to Mars presents hefty challenges, mainly associated with the planet’s high gravity, which heightens the risk of crashing during takeoffs and landings. The large amounts of fuel needed to overcome Mars’ strong pull during takeoffs could also make missions prohibitively expensive.

But Phobos’ gravity is a thousand times weaker than on Mars. If Phobos did indeed originate from the red planet, scientists could study Mars without the dangers and costs associated with its high gravity simply by sending astronauts to Phobos. They could study the moon itself or use it as a base station to operate a robot located on Mars.  The moon could also serve as a site to test technologies for potential use in a human mission to the planet.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered,” Pavone said of the spacecraft-rover hybrid. “Before sampling we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface.”

These probes could  be precursors to a sample return mission. A promising area to dig determined beforehand would cut down on cost and wear and tear.

But these rovers could be used on their own for private industry, such as Google Maps in order to give ( and sell ) accurate virtual reality tours to Millenials who wish to sit in their livingrooms and explore Mars safely.

A true pre-Singularity technology.

Acrobatic space rovers to explore moons and asteroids

The Empty Horizon

From Aeon Magazine:

Pont-de-Normandie-bridge

The Pont de Normandie bridge over the Seine estuary. Photo by Jean Gaumy/Magnum

Marek Kohn is an author and journalist. His most recent book is Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up.

print icon

Make a model of the world in your mind. Populate it, starting with the people you know. Build it up and furnish it. Draw in the lines that connect it all together, and the ones that divide it. Then roll it into the future. As you go forward, things disappear. Within a century or so, you and all the people around you have gone. As things go that are certain to go, they leave empty spaces. So do the uncertainties: the things that may not be things in the future, or may take different forms — vehicles, homes, ways of communicating, nations — that from here can be no more than a shimmer on the horizon. As one thing after another disappears, the scene fades to white. If you want a vision, you’ll have to project it yourself.

Occasionally, people take steps to counter the emptying by making things that will endure into the distant future. At a Hindu monastery in Hawaii, the Iraivan Temple is being built to last 1,000 years, using special concrete construction techniques. Carmelite monks plan to build a gothic monastery in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming that will stand equally long. Norway’s National Library is expected to preserve documents for a 1,000-year span. The Long Now Foundation dwarfs these ambitions by an order of magnitude with its project to build a clock, inside a Nevada mountain, that will work for 10,000 years. And underground waste disposal plans for the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland have been reviewed for the next 250,000 years; the spent fuel will be held in copper canisters promised to last for millions of years.

An empty horizon matters. How can you care about something you can’t imagine?

A project can also reach out to the distant future even if it doesn’t have a figure placed on its lifespan. How many blueprints for great works, such as Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, or Haussmann’s Paris boulevards, or even Bazalgette’s London sewers, were drawn with the distant future in the corner of the architect’s or the engineer’s eye? The value of longevity is widely taken for granted: the 1,000-year targets for the Iraivan Temple, the new Mount Carmel monastery and the National Library of Norway are declared with little explanation as to why that particular round number has been chosen.

Instead, they play to intuition. A 1,000-year span has an intuitive symmetry for nations such as Norway that have a millennium of history behind them: it alludes to the depth of the nation’s heritage while suggesting that the country has at least as much history yet to come. For spiritual institutions, 1,000 years is short enough to be credible — England, for example, is dotted with Norman churches approaching their millennium — and long enough to refer to a timescale that extends beyond normal human capacities, thus pointing to the divine and the eternal.

People don’t generally reach out to the distant future for the future’s sake. Often what they chiefly want to reach is a contemporary audience. Going to extreme lengths to prevent vestigial nuclear hazards the other side of the next ice age is a demonstration of capacity, commitment to safety, and attention to detail. If this is what we’re doing for the distant future, it says to an uneasy public, you can be absolutely sure that we’ve got every possible near-term risk covered, too.

At the ultimate extreme, the Voyager space probes are carrying samplers of human culture, on golden disks, out of the solar system and on into infinite space. The notional beneficiaries are life forms that are not known to exist, from planets not yet detected, at distances the probes will not reach for millions of years. But the real beneficiaries were the people who reflected on our species and its place in the universe as they assembled the records and their content. The golden disks were mirrors of the culture that made them.

Any project with a distant time-horizon can be explained away as an exercise that invokes the future in the pursuit of immediate goals. But even if such a project is all about us, that doesn’t mean it’s not about the future too. The Long Now Foundation is an attempt to cultivate a consciousness that expands the horizons of the present. (Its name emerged from Brian Eno’s observation that in New York what people meant by ‘now’ was markedly shorter than what people meant by it in Europe.) By expanding ‘now’ to multi-millennial proportions, it makes us part of the future, and the future part of us.

The Great Cathedrals of the Middle Ages ( and of course, The Great Pyramids millenia earlier ) fit into this category also. Whole families were employed for generations constructing these great pieces of archecture and art.

It has been proposed that future interstellar missions to Alpha Centauri, Gliese and Tau Ceti could be considered long-term multi-generation projects also ( barring invention of a warp drive ). Such projects could only happen if Earth like worlds are confirmed by advanced telescopes inspecting these stars in order to justify the expense of these missions.

Either way, future projects of this magnitude aren’t strangers to Mankind. Maybe the  horizon isn’t quite so empty?

The thousand-year stare

Slow Galactic Colonization, Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox

I couldn’t resist posting this today after reading it at Centauri Dreams. It’s extremely mainstream, by which the papers Paul Gilster discusses uses geological travel times for interstellar travel and the effects on the Fermi Paradox.

But he talks about the “zoo” hypothesis for our supposed lack of contact with ETIs ( no discussion of UFOs what-so-ever of course ) and I find that fascinating:

[...]

Many explanations for the Fermi paradox exist, but Hair and Hedman want to look at the possibility that starflight is so long and difficult that it takes vast amounts of time (measured in geologic epochs) to colonize on the galactic scale. Given that scenario, large voids within the colonized regions may still persist and remain uninhabited. If the Earth were located inside one of these voids we would not be aware of the extraterrestrial expansion. A second possibility is that starflight is so hard to achieve that other civilizations have simply not had time to reach us despite having, by some calculations, as much as 5 billion years to have done so (the latter figure comes from Charles Lineweaver, and I’ll have more to say about it in a moment).

Image: A detailed view of part of the disc of the spiral galaxy NGC 4565. Have technological civilizations had time enough to spread through an entire galaxy, and if so, would they be detectable? Credit: ESA/NASA.

The authors work with an algorithm that allows modeling of the expansion from the original star, running through iterations that allow emigration patterns to be analyzed in light of these prospects. It turns out that in 250 iterations, covering 250,000 years, a civilization most likely to emigrate will travel about 500 light years, for a rate of expansion that is approximately one-fourth of the maximum travel speed of one percent of the speed of light, the conservative figure chosen for this investigation. A civilization would spread through the galaxy in less than 50 million years.

These are striking numbers. Given five billion years to work with, the first civilization to develop starfaring capabilities could have colonized the Milky Way not one but 100 times. The idea that it takes billions of years to accomplish a galaxy-wide expansion fails the test of this modeling. Moreover, the idea of voids inside colonized space fails to explain the Fermi paradox as well:

…while interior voids exist at lower values of c initially, most large interior voids become colonized after long periods regardless of the cardinal value chosen, leaving behind only relatively small voids. In an examination of several 250 Kyr models with a wide range of parameters, the largest interior void encountered was roughly 30 light years in diameter. Since humans have been broadcasting radio since the early 20th century and actively listening to radio signals from space since 1960 (Time 1960), it is highly unlikely that the Earth is located in a void large enough to remain undiscovered to the present day. It follows that the second explanation of Fermi’s Paradox (Landis 1998) is not supported by the model presented.

There are mitigating factors that can slow down what the authors call the ‘explosively exponential nature’ of expansion, in which a parent colony produces daughter colonies and the daughters continue to do the same ad infinitum. The paper’s model suggests that intense competition for new worlds can spring up in the expanding wavefront of colonization. At the same time, moving into interior voids to fill them with colonies slows the outward expansion. But even models set up to reduce competition between colonies present the same result: Fermi’s lunchtime calculations seem to be valid, and the fact that we do not see evidence of other civilizations suggests that this kind of galactic expansion has not yet taken place.

Temporal Dispersion into the Galaxy

I can’t discuss Hair and Hedman’s work without reference to Hair’s earlier paper on the expansion of extraterrestrial civilizations over time. Tom had sent me this one in 2011 and I worked it into the Centauri Dreams queue before getting sidetracked by preparations for the 100 Year Starship symposium in Orlando. If I had been on the ball, I would have run an analysis of Tom’s paper at the time, but the delay gives me the opportunity to consider the two papers together, which turns out to work because they are a natural fit.

For you can see that Hair’s spatial analysis goes hand in glove with the question of why an extraterrestrial intelligence might avoid making its presence known. Given that models of expansion point to a galaxy that can be colonized many times over before humans ever emerged on our planet, let’s take up a classic answer to the Fermi paradox, that the ‘zoo hypothesis’ is in effect, a policy of non-interference in local affairs for whatever reason. Initially compelling, the idea seems to break down under close examination, given that it only takes one civilization to act contrary to it.

But there is one plausible scenario that allows the zoo hypothesis to work: The influence of a particularly distinguished civilization. Call it the first civilization. What sort of temporal head start would this first civilization have over later arrivals?

Hair uses Monte Carlo simulations, drawing on the work of Charles Lineweaver and the latter’s estimate that planets began forming approximately 9.3 billion years ago. Using Earth as a model and assuming that life emerged here about 600 million years after formation, we get an estimate of 8.7 billion years ago for the appearance of the first life in the Milky Way. Factoring in how long it took for complex land-dwelling organisms to evolve (3.7 billion years), Lineweaver concludes that the conditions necessary to support intelligent life in the universe could have been present for at least 5.0 billion years. At some point in that 5 billion years, if other intelligent species exist, the first civilization arose. Hair’s modeling goes to work on how long this civilization would have had to itself before other intelligence emerged. The question thus has Fermi implications:

…even if this first grand civilization is long gone . . . could their initial legacy live on in the form of a passed down tradition? Beyond this, it does not even have to be the first civilization, but simply the first to spread its doctrine and control over a large volume of the galaxy. If just one civilization gained this hegemony in the distant past, it could form an unbroken chain of taboo against rapacious colonization in favour of non-interference in those civilizations that follow. The uniformity of motive concept previously mentioned would become moot in such a situation.

Thus the Zoo Hypothesis begins to look a bit more plausible if we have each subsequent civilization emerging into a galaxy monitored by a vastly more ancient predecessor who has established the basic rules for interaction between intelligent species. The details of Hair’s modeling are found in the paper, but the conclusions are startling, at least to me:

The time between the emergence of the first civilization within the Milky Way and all subsequent civilizations could be enormous. The Monte Carlo data show that even using a crowded galaxy scenario the first few inter-arrival times are similar in length to geologic epochs on Earth. Just what could a civilization do with a ten million, one hundred million, or half billion year head start (Kardashev 1964)? If, for example, civilizations uniformly arise within the Galactic Habitable Zone, then on these timescales the first civilization would be able to reach the solar system of the second civilization long before it evolved even travelling at a very modest fraction of light speed (Bracewell 1974, 1982; Freitas 1980). What impact would the arrival of the first civilization have on the future evolution of the second civilization? Would the second civilization even be allowed to evolve? Attempting to answer these questions leads to one of two basic conclusions, the first is that we are alone in the Galaxy and thus no one has passed this way, and the second is that we are not alone in the Galaxy and someone has passed this way and then deliberately left us alone.

The zoo hypothesis indeed. A galactic model of non-interference is a tough sell because of the assumed diversity between cultures emerging on a vast array of worlds over time. But Hair’s ‘modified zoo hypothesis’ has great appeal. It assumes that the oldest civilization in the galaxy has a 100 million year head start, allowing it to become hugely influential in monitoring or perhaps controlling emerging civilizations. We would thus be talking about the possibility of evolving similar cultural standards with regard to contact as civilizations follow the lead of this assumed first intelligence when expanding into the galaxy. It’s an answer to Fermi that holds out hope we are not alone, and I’ll count that as still another encouraging thought on the day the world didn’t end.

I have a problem with this simply because of the economics involved; what is the motivation for ETIs to expand into the Universe to begin with?

Like, are they like humans in the sense that we go because “it’s there?”

Or are there more practical impulses involved like “can we make money” on these endeavors?

A commentor to this particular post wrote that before we colonize ( if we ever do ) the Moon, Mars and other planets in this Solar System ( and perhaps the closer stars ) that it’ll be cheaper to shoot small probes with micro cameras to these places ( NASA is already proposing sending tele-operated probes to the Lunar surface instead of astronauts ) and sell virtual reality tours. Expanded versions of Google Earth and Google Mars!

In other words, it’s cheaper to build Universes that have Star Trek and upload your mind into it than actually building such things as star-ships!

Could this be an answer to the Fermi Paradox?

New Models of Galactic Expansion

Canned “E” Primates for Interstellar Travel and a Possible Destination for Them

From kurzweilai.net:

The awesome 100 Year Starship (100YSS) initiative by DARPA and NASA proposes to send people to the stars by the year 2100 — a huge challenge that will require bold, visionary, out-of-the-box thinking.

There are major challenges. “Using current propulsion technology, travel to a nearby star (such as our closest star system, Alpha Centauri, at 4.37 light years from the Sun, which also has a a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting it) would take close to 100,000 years,” according to Icarus Interstellar, which has teamed with the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and the Foundation for Enterprise Development to manage the project.

“To make the trip on timescales of a human lifetime, the rocket needs to travel much faster than current probes, at least 5% the speed of light. … It’s actually physically impossible to do this using chemical rockets, since you’d need more fuel than exists in the known universe,” Icarus Interstellar points out.

Daedalus concept (credit: Adrian Mann)

So the Icarus team has chosen a fusion-based propulsion design for Project Icarus, offering a million times more energy compared to chemical reactions. It would be evolved from their Daedalus design.

This propulsion technology is not yet well developed, and there are serious problems, such as the need for heavy neutron shields and risks of interstellar dust impacts, equivalent to small nuclear explosions on the craft’s skin, as the Icarus team states.

Although Einstein’s fundamental speed-of-light limit seems solid, ways to work around it were also proposed by physicists at the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium.

However, as a reality check, I will assume as a worse case that none of these exotic propulsion breakthroughs will be developed in this century.

That leaves us with an unmanned craft, but for that, as Icarus Interstellar points out, “one needs a large amount of system autonomy and redundancy. If the craft travels five light years from Earth, for example, it means that any message informing mission control of some kind of system error would take five years to reach the scientists, and another five years for a solution to be received.

“Ten years is really too long to wait, so the craft needs a highly capable artificial intelligence, so that it can figure out solutions to problems with a high degree of autonomy.”

If a technological Singularity happens, all bets are off. However, again as a worse case, I assume here that a Singularity does not happen, or fully simulating an astronaut does not happen. So human monitoring and control will still be needed.

The mind-uploading solution

The very high cost of a crewed space mission comes from the need to ensure the survival and safety of the humans on-board and the need to travel at extremely high speeds to ensure it’s done within a human lifetime.

One way to  overcome that is to do without the wetware bodies of the crew, and send only their minds to the stars — their “software” — uploaded to advanced circuitry, augmented by AI subsystems in the starship’s processing system.

The basic idea of uploading is to “take a particular brain [of an astronaut, in this case], scan its structure in detail, and construct a software model of it that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain,” as Oxford University’s Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap explains.

It’s also known as “whole brain emulation” and “substrate-independent minds” — the astronaut’s memories, thoughts, feelings, personality, and “self” would be copied to an alternative processing substrate — such as a digital, analog, or quantum computer.

An e-crew — a crew of human uploads implemented in solid-state electronic circuitry — will not require air, water, food, medical care, or radiation shielding, and may be able to withstand extreme acceleration. So the size and weight of the starship will be dramatically reduced.

Combined advances in neuroscience and computer science suggest that mind uploading technology could be developed in this century, as noted in a recent Special Issue on Mind Uploading of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness).

Uploading research is politically incorrect: it is tainted by association with transhumanists — those fringe lunatics of the Rapture of the Nerds — so it’s often difficult to justify and defend.

The Rapture of the Nerds thing could very well be more of a political sticking point than a technological one in the next few decades, especially in the conservative United States.

However the U.S. has the most advanced robotic tech and DARPA has already developed electronic “telepathy” gear so soldiers can control warfare drones from anywhere on the planet, so it’s not a stretch that semi “autonomous” AI will be in the mix for future space probes in the coming decades.

But there will always be a human being in the loop because no matter how advanced computers become, they will never attain “consciousness.”

Uploaded e-crews for interstellar missions

__________________________________

Just in case we do develop canned “e” primates via mind uploading in the future, there could be a nearby destination for them:

Astronomers have discovered what may be five planets orbiting Tau Ceti, the closest single star beyond our solar system whose temperature and luminosity nearly match the sun’s, Science Now reports.

If the planets are in fact there, one of them is about the right distance from the star to sport mild temperatures, oceans of liquid water, and even life, and slight changes in Tau Ceti’s motion through space suggest that the star may be responding to gravitational tugs from five planets that are only about two to seven times as massive as Earth.

Tau Ceti is only 12 light-years from Earth, just three times as far as our sun’s nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

Early SETI target

The Sun (left) is both larger and somewhat hotter than the less active Tau Ceti (right).

Tau Ceti resembles the sun so much that astronomer Frank Drake, who has long sought radio signals from possible extraterrestrial civilizations, made it his first target back in 1960. Unlike most stars, which are faint, cool, and small, Tau Ceti is a bright G-type yellow main-sequence star like the sun, a trait that only one in 25 stars boasts.

Moreover, unlike Alpha Centauri, which also harbors a G-type star and even a planet, Tau Ceti is single, so there’s no second star in the system whose gravity could yank planets away.

It’s the fourth planet — planet e — that the scientists suggest might be another life-bearing world, even though it’s about four times as massive as Earth.

If the planets exist, they orbit a star that’s about twice as old as our own, so a suitable planet has had plenty of time to develop life much more advanced than Homo sapiens.

I have a question; if we ship “e” humans to another star, what is the motivation for them to study a base human habitable planet?

Would they retain primate curiosity or would they be altruistic?

Another Earth just 12 light-years away?

To Test the Simulated World Theory

From The Seattle Times:

It is entirely plausible, says University of Washington physics professor Martin Savage, that our universe and everything in it is one huge computer simulation being run by our descendants.

You, me, this newspaper, the room you’re sitting in — everything we think of as reality is actually being generated by vast, powerful supercomputers of the future.

If that sounds mind-blowing, Savage and his colleagues think they’ve come up with a way to test whether it’s true.

Their paper, “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,” has kindled a lively international discussion about the simulation argument, which was first put forth in 2003 by University of Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom.

A UW News posting explaining Savage’s paper has gotten more than 100,000 page views in a week, and ignited theories about the nature of reality and consciousness, the limits on computer networks and musings about what our future selves might be like.

Savage has been interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, The Australian and journalists in Finland, and his colleague and co-author, University of New Hampshire professor Silas Beane, has been interviewed by the BBC. UW physics graduate student Zohreh Davoudi also contributed to the paper.

“It’s sort of caught fire,” Savage said.

Bostrom, the Oxford professor, first proposed the idea that we live in a computer simulation in 2003. In a 2006 article, he said there was probably no way to know for certain if it is true.

Savage — who describes his “day job” as doing numerical simulations of lattice quantum chromodynamics — said a chance discussion among colleagues sparked the idea that there was a way to test the truth of Bostrom’s theory.

And although it might deviate from the work he usually does, it was a worthy question because “there are lots of things about our universe we don’t fully understand,” Savage said. “This is certainly a different scenario for how our universe works — but nonetheless, it’s quite plausible.”

In the paper, the physicists propose looking for a “signature,” or pattern, in our universe that also occurs in current small-scale computer simulations. One such pattern might be a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays.

Because this theory is starting to test the limits of this reporter’s scientific knowledge, we are going to rely on the words of UW News science writer Vince Stricherz, who translated the 14-page paper into laymen’s terms:

“There are signatures of resource constraints in present-day simulations that are likely to exist as well in simulations in the distant future, including the imprint of an underlying lattice if one is used to model the space-time continuum,” Stricherz wrote.

If our world is a computer simulation, “the highest-energy cosmic rays would not travel along the edges of the lattice in the model but would travel diagonally, and they would not interact equally in all directions as they otherwise would be expected to do.”

Got that?

In other words, even supercomputers capable of creating a simulation of the universe would be hobbled by finite resources, and one way we might be able to detect those limits is to look for cosmic rays that don’t travel the way they would be expected to travel.

When I first read Bostrum’s treatise in 2003, I thought of all of the science-fiction I had read to that point in order to pick my own brain on the subject. Simulated universes are an old theme in sci-fi and dates back to Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Star Maker’ and possibly earlier to Dr. E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series.

The point I’m trying to make is if it seems like science fiction today, don’t be so sure it still will be tomorrow!

Living in a simulated world: UW scientists explore the theory

Hat tip to Red Ice Creations.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers